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Monday, November 28

War in the Information Age: Did John Murtha and The Sunday Times quote General Casey out of context?

If The Sunday Times quoted General George Casey out of context, they got away with undercutting the US rationale for keeping troops in Iraq -- and they used a statement by the senior US commander in Iraq to do it. And they did it less than a month before Iraq votes in their permanent government.

On November 20, The Sunday Times -- the sister publication of The Times, Britain's "paper of record" and arguably the world's most influential newspaper -- published an article titled American plan for first troop withdrawals within month. The first two paragraphs outline a plan reportedly drawn up by generals George Casey and John Abizaid for the US to reduce the number of troops in Iraq by more than a third by the end of next year, and compare this to the UK plan for phasing out their troops in Iraq.

The Sunday Times next presents a quote that is clearly meant to describe the generals' rationale for drawing down US troops in Iraq:
General George Casey, the US commander in Iraq, told Congress in September that the large US military presence was fuelling the insurgency.

It “feeds the notion of occupation”, he said, and “extends the amount of time it will take for Iraqi security forces to become self-reliant”.(1)
If that sounds familiar, it is virtually the same quote used by Representative John Murtha (D-PA) to introduce his rationale for calling for immediate withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq:
General Casey said in a September 2005 Hearing, “the perception of occupation in Iraq is a major driving force behind the insurgency."(2)
Yet a September 30 Associated Press report suggests that Murtha, and The Times, quoted Casey out of context:
Both Abizaid and Casey said they did not want a large increase of U.S. forces in Iraq, in part because that would fuel the insurgency by reinforcing the perception among Iraqis of the Americans as occupiers.(3)
That is quite different from saying that the US troop presence in Iraq is fueling the insurgency. If the AP account is correct, why would a prestigious newspaper and John Murtha grossly distort the words of the US commander in Iraq? Here we come to the fun part. It's not certain that is what they did.

According to a September 30 Knight Ridder Newspapers report, General Casey indeed stated that the US troop presence in Iraq fueled the insurgency:
Casey also said the U.S. presence in Iraq was fueling the insurgency because of the perception of a U.S. occupation, making a troop reduction critical to the U.S. mission in Iraq.(4)
No, we can't clarify what Casey said by going to the official transcript because it won't be published online until next year, if it's published.

And no, the hearing is not in the C-SPAN archive. All that's there is the Pentagon press briefing the day after the hearings, in which Casey and Abizaid answered questions related to their testimony at the Senate and House armed services committees. The generals did not say anything at the Pentagon briefing that specifically pertains to the quotes used by Murtha and The Sunday Times or which resolves the contradiction between the AP and Knight Ridder accounts.(5)

A news organization might have published the entire transcript but in the process of researching this I was stopped by something odd. It's almost as if there were two different Senate hearings from the way they were headlined and described by the major media and The Washington Times.

The major media reports on the hearings and the questions at the Pentagon press briefing focus on what Congress thought about the generals' testimony:

General Casey raised alarm among the Senate Armed Services Committee members when he announced that the number of combat-ready Iraqi military battalions had dropped from three to one. Heated discussion revolved around the issue, so naturally the major news media fixed on that portion of the hearing:
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he was troubled that with such uneven progress in training the Iraqi army, the Bush administration is still planning for the possible withdrawal of some U.S. troops from Iraq next year.

Casey said troops reductions are an important part of the overall military strategy for stabilizing Iraq. He declined to predict, as he had in July, that the Pentagon could make a fairly substantial troop withdrawal next year if political progress continues and the insurgency does not grow more violent. But he said under questioning by committee members that troop reductions were possible in 2006.

“You’re taking a very big gamble here,” McCain said to Casey. “I hope you’re correct. I don’t see the indicators yet that we are ready to plan or begin troop withdrawals, given the overall security situation.”

Democrats on the panel pressed Casey and Gen. John Abizaid, the Central Command commander who also testified, for clear measures of progress on the military front and for indications that the Iraqis are taking seriously the need to assume more responsibility for their own security.
(3)
The Washington Times, which is oriented to the Pentagon and war/ counterterroism issues, highlights a part of the testimony that discusses al Qaeda's threat:
Gen. Abizaid raised the stakes for Iraq by presenting a chilling assessment of al Qaeda's worldwide goals. He said leader Osama bin Laden's sights are set on Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and then the entire region, as well as Asia.

Although the Bush administration describes the conflict as the "war on terror," Gen. Abizaid made clear the enemy is al Qaeda.

"Their objectives are very clear," Gen. Abizaid said. "They believe in a jihad, a jihad, first and foremost, to overthrow the legitimate regimes in the region. But in order to do that, they have to first drive us from the region. This is what they believe. They believe, ultimately, that the greatest prize of all is Saudi Arabia and the holy shrines there."

He said the war against Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq, and al Qaeda worldwide, presents "a rare opportunity to get in front of these extremists and focus on them now before al Qaeda and its underlying ideology becomes mainstream."
(6)
If those words sound familiar, they hark to passages in President Bush's headline-making speech to the National Endowment for Democracy on November 6.

The speech set off a media firestorm, if you recall; critics charged that Bush's discussion about al Qaeda's plan for a global caliphate switched horses midstream in an effort to shore public support for the US operations in Iraq. But as the Washington Times article indicates, actually all Bush did was summarize a portion of testimony given by General Abizaid at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in September.

These observations don't bring us closer to learning whether the Knight Ridder reporter, John Murtha, and The Sunday Times quoted General Casey out of context. Yet I find it hard to entertain that after describing the nature of Qaeda's threat, Abizaid or Casey would flatly assert that the US presence in Iraq is fueling the insurgency. That's because Qaeda is not an insurgency movement.

Indeed, Iraq's Baathist insurgency made a fatal mistake by hooking up with Qaeda, which has invaded Iraq and is intent on setting up their own government in the country. The vast majority of Iraqis who had joined Qaeda fell away when they saw that the insurgency's tactics were directed at Iraqi civilians and took indiscriminate civilian casualties.

Ayman al Zawahiri's plan is the major Qaeda recruitment tool, not the US presence in Iraq. Certainly, Qaeda has used whatever situations are available, including the US presence in Iraq, to help with recruitment. But if all the Coalition troops in Iraq went home tomorrow that would not stop Zawahiri's plan. If the US had never invaded Iraq, that too would have made no difference to the plan.

General Casey and General Abizaid went to the Hill in September 2005 in part to deliver that news. However, the members of Congress they spoke to were grappling with public concern about mounting US casualties in Iraq and worry that the US had not sent enough troops to Iraq to quell the insurgency.

That placed the generals in the difficult position of arguing somewhat at cross purposes or at least on two different fronts. The generals wanted to tamp down calls for a large additional troop deployment to Iraq. At the same time they wanted to justify a plan to draw down US troops in 2006.

The latter had to be justified in the face of news that two out of three Iraqi battalions had been downgraded during a time when al Qaeda's attacks in Iraq were in full tilt. And the generals had to make their arguments without spilling classified information.

So it might turn out that the official transcript of the Senate hearing supports both the Knight Ridder and Associated Press versions of Casey's remarks. It could be that at different points Casey used his concern about the insurgency's relation to Qaeda's plans to support two different arguments.

Then where does that leave Knight Ridder's version of what Casey said? Out dancing with a contradiction on thin air, until a complete transcript of the generals' testimony is located.

And where, for that matter, does it leave Casey's reported assertion that an increased US troop presence would help fuel the insurgency? Filed under "War During the Information Era," perhaps?

1) November 20 The Sunday Times. Report filed by Sarah Baxter and Michael Smith.

2) November 17, The Hon. John P. Murtha, press release introducing his resolution to redeploy American troops in Iraq.

3) September 30 Associated Press. Report filed by Robert Burns. Via Spokane, Washington newspaper, The Spokesman Review.

4) September 30 Knight Ridder Newspapers. Report filed by Nancy A. Youssef and Jonathan S. Landay. Via Seattle, Washington newspaper, The Seattle Times.

5) September 30 Department of Defense press briefing.

6) September 30 The Washington Times. Report filed by Rowan Scarborough.
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